Novel extract – Darkbane: The Troll of Fell Wood
He sensed the troll before they had even reached the village.
Darkbane stepped down from the cart when it rolled to a stop, and handed the fretful driver a couple of coins from the pocket of his waistcoat. “Get yourself gone, sir,” he said. “No need for you to linger here.”
The driver, pale faced, eyes darting back and forth, had turned his horse and cart and set off before Darkbane could say another word. He didn’t blame the man.
In truth the place could hardly be called a village, he saw as he drew closer. The small gathering of wooden buildings stood in an uneven circle, surrounded by tall pines and seeming to hunch together against the fierce, stinking wind sweeping off the marshland to the north. There was not a house in sight whose roof was not pocked with holes or bore windows not smashed and splintered. The tallest of the buildings looked to have been a church once, though now its belfry leaned crooked and the cross that had hung above the missing doors lay broken in the churned mud. At the village’s centre stood a canopied well, half collapsed, half sunken.
“You took yur time. The beasts snatched three young ‘uns in as many days, already.”
Darkbane turned to see an old woman glaring at him through strings of greasy grey hair, with her one milky eye. Muttering, she shuffled from the door of her cottage, taking in his head of grizzled brown hair, his brown leather long coat and his mud caked boots.
“Took ‘em without makin’ a sound, it did,” she said. Yellow spittle flecked her jutting chin and the pale, shrivelled skin of her face, hanging like drapes from her emaciated cheek bones, trembled. With a long, coal blackened finger she jabbed Darkbane in the chest. “What’re you gonna do ‘bout that? Stand there like a tree? You are Darkbane, aren’t ya?”
Darkbane grunted, lifted his gaze and met the woman’s eye. “There are some who call me that,” he said.
The old woman let out a hoarse cackle to which the scraggly raven perched on the sagging rooftop overhead made a squawked reply.
She hawked a lump of saliva at Darkbane’s feet. “Born of the Dark, they say,” she said, limping closer. “Son of a demon, they say. No memories, no name. But where there’s evil to be killed, you’ll do the killing… they say.”
Warm air, thick with the smell of ale and the unwashed, hit Darkbane as he stepped into the inn. The dirty white washed walls glowed with the light of a fire burning in a large fireplace, but shadows still rippled in the corners. Raucous laughter and slurred voices filled the low ceilinged room.
As Darkbane carved a path through the battered tables the laughter and voices died in his wake. Only whispered words defied the silence. He was used to animosity, and so the suspicious, fearful stares and occasional barked curse didn’t bother him.
“I’d like a room for the night, if there’s any going,” he said, taking off his wide brimmed brown leather hat as he reached the bar.
The innkeeper, a short man with ruddy cheeks and a pot belly stared at Darkbane, his thick grey eyebrows set at fierce angles. “Come to rid us of the beast ‘av ya’?” he said. “Tell me, what man can face such creatures… face the Dark, and live?”
Darkbane saw the man’s watery green eyes fix on the protruding hilt of the sword and the dully shining head of the axe in his belt. He made no effort to conceal them with his coat. “Facing the Dark ain’t difficult,” Darkbane said, “it’s standing against it that is. What man can face it and live? One who knows that running from it don’t do a bit of good. Now, I’d like a room for the night.”
River trolls. I’ve faced creatures that many could scarcely even begin to comprehend. Even in their nightmares. But, River trolls… I’d rather face a dozen of the Dark’s foulest offspring than have to deal with a River troll. Brutal, colossal, fast as a hare, they are. And they don’t kill you quickly. No, not like a boggart that’ll split your stomach before you can blink or a werewolf that’ll tear out your throat in a heartbeat. River trolls like to draw it out, make you squeal and squirm for days, weeks. It had to be a River troll.
Darkbane’s right hand rested upon the head of the axe hanging loose and ready in the leather loop on his belt. Concealed by the long reaches of his great coat were his sword and the usual array of implements, potent to those things born of the Dark. But it was his axe that he’d need: its blade of pure silver, etched with ancient wards.
The rain thrummed on his hat, dripping off its cusp, but Darkbane didn’t hear it. The fat drops permeated his collar, running in cold rivulets down his neck and back, but he didn’t feel them. He strode swiftly through the trees, his path silent. The same could not be said for the forest around him. A whining gale swirled about in the high reaches of the treetops; the old boughs groaned under its force. Through the sparse browning foliage the rain fell, drumming softly. Thunder growled, heralding the storm. Darkbane grunted an indignant word or two, scowling at the roof of boiling clouds overhead: hardly the conditions for tracking a troll.
The words of the old woman played in Darkbane’s head, “Dragged em off into the forest, it did. To its lair, that’s where it took em and no mistake.”
He’d smelled the troll the moment he’d breached the forest that girdled the village. Its foul stench, akin to festering bogs and decomposing carcasses, had been like needles to his senses. Unmistakable. Less than fifty yards in and Darkbane’s keen grey eyes had found the first visible sign of the troll. It had been uncovered by the rain, a pale dome emerging from the leaves like a fallen moon. Kneeling, he’d scooped it from the soft earth. The skull grinned back at Darkbane, as clean as if it had been carved from ivory; not a scrap of skin or hair left on it. “River trolls,” he’d growled.
With every step he took, the press of the Dark waxed stronger; burning deep and dull in his chest. Darkbane felt the old wound in his shoulder twinge. He bit back the pain.
A sonorous roar penetrated the wail of the storm. Darkbane stopped; his fingers fell to the haft of the axe, curled tight around it. He shunned the rain and the wind and that was when he heard it. So loud and clear that the troll could have been inches from him: guttural growls and then a strangled scream. A child’s scream.
“So it begins.” Drawing his axe, Darkbane reached out with a little of his magic. The troll’s Dark parried it with the force of a mace, winding him. But he recovered, an unbidden smile touching his face. “Let us see how your might stands against my blade, beast.”
He ran north, swift and unwavering, teeth gritted against the throbbing in his chest. Underfoot, the leaves gave way to a carpet of bones. Rib cages, spines and arms with twisted fingers grew from the soft mulch, like bleached foliage. Skulls stared up with hollow eyes; among the larger ones of cattle and bears were humans’ some caved in and splintered with cracks. A river gurgled somewhere close by, as yet concealed by a low hanging fog that had formed as the rain relented.
Suddenly, the soft mulch became marsh and Darkbane could no longer keep his presence silent. Mud and algae clung to his boots like grappling hands as he waded into the deepening bog. Moss strangled the trees, dragging the decaying trunks and bare, gnarled boughs down into the stagnant pools. The air was heavy with the stench of a thousand rotting things. Darkbane had found the troll’s lair.
Where are you? To Darkbane’s raised magic the troll’s presence was like a battering ram. It was close, no doubt as aware of him as Darkbane was of it.
As he stepped forward, the carcass of a deer, lashed in ropes of reeds and roots, emerged from the mist. Its belly lay open, the ribcage parted like curtains to reveal the animal’s half devoured insides.
“Interrupted your supper, did I?” said Darkbane, pausing. His knuckles clicked, tightening around the axe’s handle.
Behind the wind’s voice and the dead trees’ creaking, Darkbane heard something else: the soft lapping of disturbed water. Standing perfectly still, he let his eyes drift to the pool just visible to his left, its surface creased with a dying ripple. “There you are.”
The pool exploded and the air was filled with stinking water. Darkbane turned, spinning his axe, drawing his sword, and planted his feet in what little solid ground there was. The troll emerged from the wave of black water; its guttural roar filled the air. A massive clawed arm arced down towards Darkbane who darted to the right. With a steeled swing of his arm, he brought the axe down.
The blade’s impact with the troll’s shoulder jarred Darkbane’s grip, but he didn’t relinquish it. Yanking upwards, he freed the axe and retreated slightly.
The beast howled its agony, clambering fully from the bog now and revealing its huge, hulking form. The troll stood towering on all fours. Its back legs, shorter than its arms, were bent, ready to pounce. Its heavily muscled body, covered in clinging algae and other growths, trembled. Two small, black eyes fixed upon Darkbane, staring out from a snake-like head. But it was not the eyes that Darkbane focused on, nor was it the elongated maw, parted to reveal rows of yellow fangs. His lip curled at the sight of the troll’s swollen belly, and the shape of an arm pushing against the skin. The fleeting image of a small boy, blonde hair, grey eyes, flashed across his thoughts. Rage he couldn’t explain kindled in Darkbane’s stomach.
With another thunderous roar the troll lunged, moving with the agility of a much lighter creature.
Darkbane swung his axe and sword as one. The sword’s razor blade bit the troll’s arm and a scarlet wound blossomed there. But the troll ignored it, landing on all fours and charging, ploughing up the soft, stinking earth as it ran.
Turning, Darkbane ran too. Sheathing his sword he thrust out his now free hand and gripped the bough of a tree overhead. With a grunt of effort he pulled himself into the branches.
Momentarily confused, the troll stopped, its eyes searching.
Tossing aside his hat, Darkbane leapt down from the tree and landed onto the troll’s humped back. Snarling, the beast reared. He locked his free arm around the troll’s neck, grimacing at its stench. Putting all of his strength into the swing, he brought the axe down again. But the blade never met the troll’s chest for at that moment it reared again, growling and snarling, gnashing its jaws. And before he could retract his grip and dive clear, the troll’s claws found his leg.
Searing pain lanced up Darkbane’s leg, through his hip and groin. Hot spears of agony darkened his vision. The next second he hit the water, still in the beast’s grip. But then he felt the claws retract from his leg and he was airborne. Choking on a mouthful of fetid water, Darkbane, helpless to avoid it, crumpled against the trunk of a tree. All the air was driven from his lungs. He didn’t even have time to gasp. Sharp bark grazed his face and the axe flew from his grip as he fell. His vision darkened, it felt as if hands were pressing against his ears, trapping the sharp ringing that echoed in his skull. And suddenly there she was again: the pale faced, screaming woman. She flashed into his head and the shock of her appearance saved Darkbane from unconsciousness.
Blinking away his nausea, he staggered to his feet and turned to face the troll thundering towards him.